Monday, September 01, 2014

Written in My Heart's Own Blood - Outlander book #8

Written in My Heart's Own Blood by Diana Gabaldon was my big book for the summer.  I love the Outlander series, and book eight didn't disappoint.  In fact I enjoyed it much more than it's predecessor, An Echo in the Bone, because it wrapped up comfortably, like the rest of the books in the series, instead of with a cliff-hanger, which was so unsettling.  There's still room for lots more books, should Gabaldon want to continue the story, but it also had a lovely sense of completeness and closure.

One of the things I like about the series is the sense of extended family--it's really the clan idea, but more so. Some of the characters are connected by blood--that's the traditional family or clan--but Jamie and Claire have big hearts and a sense of responsibility to the waifs and the dispossessed whose paths intersect with theirs, and the collection of people who can rightfully say they are part of the Fraser clan, American-style is large and diverse.  Sort of like America itself!

This particular book had the right balance of time travel stuff thrown in too.  In some of the books, the idea of Claire being not of the time she is living sometimes gets lost in the plot.  And there definitely is a lot of plot...and characters...and story threads.  Gabaldon also achieves the right balance of Jamie/Claire with the rest of the threads.  Some of the newer characters are really growing on me, and it was so good to have Jenny's sister Claire back on stage again.  I can't help it, I'm already matchmaking for her and I think Lord John's brother Hal would be an interesting love-interest.  I don't believe he's eligible at the moment, but a lot can happen!

Again, I'm so impressed by the level of detail Gabaldon achieves in a very throw-away style. You never get the feeling with her that she is inserting her research because she did it. I found Claire's treatment of Lord John's eye absolutely fascinating, and I did some reading on the Revolutionary War battles that feature in the story and Gabaldon got the details right and made them relevant.  That is no mean feat.

I do hope there's a book nine in the works.  I think with the Outlander TV series looking so good, the market will be hungry for more.  I sure am.

Speaking of the TV series, did everyone catch Gabaldon in her bit part as Iona McTavish, who attended the gathering?  She talks about it on an Aug 30 post on Facebook.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Austen in August: The Watsons and Emma Watson...Review and Giveaway

The problem with completions of unfinished works is that the reader inevitably compares the completed work to that of the fragment by a hallowed author.  The resultant work inevitably falls short because the author of the completed work seeks to both pay homage to and shine beside the hallowed author. There is no better example of this phenomenon than in Joan Aiken's Emma Watson, acompletion of Jane Austen's The Watsons, which I read for Austen in August.

If Emma Watson wasn't inextricably tied to The Watsons, then I would say it was a reasonably good Regency Romance.  Not on par with a Georgette Heyer, but not bad.  It has a spirited heroine, an unattainable Lord, a nasty Lady, a sympathetic ingénue, a flighty aunt, an unconventional hero, a wonderful red herring, a rattle, a passel of siblings (some rotten, some sound), and a sympathetic parent.  But, it also has a suicide in addition to several other deaths, most of which affect the heroine directly and direly. Did Aiken not read Austen?  Did she not know that other pens may dwell on misery but Austenland harbors no purveyors of gothic misery?  The bit of ivory two inches wide is meant to contain a recognizable world, filled with realistic people who have common human failings but whose stories are worth telling.  The stories in Emma Watson, while somewhat interesting, aren't memorable because they basically are contrived.

The many ways in which Aiken pays homage to Austen range from sweet to cloying.  The Watsons was written between 1803 and 1805, while the Austen family (mother, father, Jane, and Cassandra) were living in Bath after Mr. Austen retired.  She abandoned it after her father died in 1805.  It is assumed that the story itself--that of sisters whose father is ailing and who hasn't enough fortune to enable his daughters to live independently--was too close to home, too painful for Austen to complete. Plus, she didn't have time to write.  She needed to figure out how to live.

Aiken writes the father's death into her story, casting Emma into a den of lions (aka siblings).  She also manages to kill off a lovely friend of Emma's, Anna Blake, echoing the tragic death of Austen's beloved friend and mentor, Anna Lefroy, who died in a riding accident shortly before Mr. Austen's death. I was personally shocked by this fictional death, and even more so by Aiken's cold-hearted murder of Anna's delightful son, Charles, with whom Emma dances in Austen's manuscript (one of the sweetest scenes Austen ever wrote in my 'umble opinion). 

Aiken dips into both Austen's life as well as her published novels for plot points, turns of phrase, and characters. Emma's older brother Robert and his wife Jane bear a remarkable resemblance to John and Fanny Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility.  Admiral Crawford and his nephew Henry (Mansfield Park) rent an estate from the nasty noble family.  Emma Watson is offered the opportunity to dedicate the next volume of her late father's sermons, which she is publishing, to the Prince Regent, and actually meets him!  I confess that my eyes got a definite aerobics workout with all the eye-rolling I indulged in.

Yet...despite all these allusions to Austen, the one thing that Aiken wasn't able to emulate was Austen's wit.  The plot was convoluted and the characters were outrageous, but it just wasn't much fun.  I love the humor in Austen--her sly barbs, her razor sharp remarks that bite through the shrug of recognition, her compassionate understanding that is tinged with grace and goodwill and a smile.  There was none of that in Emma Watson. Truth be told, there was precious little of it in The Watsons.  I like to think that if Austen had lived longer, she might have revisited this story and imbued it with more humor than she could muster when she started it.  

I think the premise of The Watsons is sound, and I think that Emma Watson has all the trappings of an Austen heroine.  I don't think that Aiken did justice to her and I likely won't bother with another of her continuations or completions, but I did enjoy getting to know Austen's fragment again...and I know that she never would have killed off that charming Charles Blake! Grrr!

If you want to see for yourself whether I'm hopelessly prejudiced or not, I am holding a giveaway for my copy of The Watsons and Emma Watson.  I'm happy to send it anywhere in the world.  Simply post a comment below along with your email address.  I will be accepting entries until Friday, August 29 at 8 pm MT.

Final note on The Watsons—I found this fascinating article recently, Jane Austen Used Pins to Edit Her Abandoned Manuscript, The Watsons.  Basically Austen edited this manuscript by pinning strips of paper with new text over the existing words.  The original “cut and paste” editing technique. My first thought was that this was a technique that wouldn’t have occurred to a man, and then I wondered whether she invented and used it more than just for The Watsons.

Giveaway winner: Mary Preston from Australia!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Big Book Summer Challenge - checkpoint

When I signed up for the Big Book Challenge earlier in the summer, I figured that Diana Gabaldon's latest, Written in My Heart's Own Blood, would be the only book that I read this summer that would qualify (i.e., >400 pages).

Boy was I ever wrong!

I'm 633 pages into the 822 pages of Written in My Heart's Own Blood, and loving it.  I'm glad I'm reading it slowly--just one section per week.  This way I have time to enjoy the story and characters and all the details that Gabaldon so painstakingly adds that makes her fictional world seem so real.

I'm also 324 pages into the 601 pages that is John Steinbeck's East of Eden.  Man, how I love this book.  I haven't read it in over 30 years and it is simply wonderful.  I just read the "timshel" section of the book where Lee expounds on the Cain and Abel story and the importance of the phrase "thou mayest."  I can't wait to visit Steinbeck country in September when I go out to visit my daughter in San Francisco.  In addition to Monterey, I'm planning on visiting Salinas and maybe King City when we go to Pinnacles National Park (hoping to see some California Condors)

I read all 576 pages of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, and reviewed it here.  I was half-way through with it before I realized it was an official "big book."

Beatriz Williams' A Hundred Summers qualified as a "big book" with 432 pages.  I reviewed it here.

Daughter of the Forest, by Juliet Marillier, was my first "big book" of the season, clocking in at 560 pages.  I read it in June with the GoodReads TuesBookTalk Read-a-Longs.  I cannot believe I never got around to reviewing it as I did enjoy it and am looking forward to reading the next book in this very interesting series.

Since I'm an English major and my mantra is "you do the math," I got out my calculator to discover that I have read 2525 pages in my Big Book Challenge so far this summer, and that's not counting the books I read that didn't have the page count required.

So yeah, I guess I like to read.

Hope you're all have a wonderful summer, reading what makes you happy, and enjoying life.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Mystery Mile - Margery Allingham

I picked Mystery Mile, by Margery Allingham, as my mystery for the Back to the Classics Challenge with the understanding that this was the first in her Albert Campion series.  It sort of was but not quite.  According to Wikipedia, Albert Campion first appeared as a supporting character in The Crime at Black Dudley (1930) before Allingham let him be the star.  So Mystery Mile is the first of a series of 18 novels in which he is the protagonist.

Mystery Mile, published in 1930, is quite a fun Golden Age detective story, complete with a country house full of charming socialites, kidnappings and disappearances, mob mayhem, witty banter, fast cars, country bumpkins, and young love?  Who could ask for more?  Well, I have to admit that I was pretty ticked off that Albert didn't get the girl in the end, but then I think that must be his cross to bear.

Wikipedia also says that Allingham created Albert Campion as a parody of Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey.  I can sort of see that.  Albert has a whimsical quality to him--he chatters in the slang of the day, but the reader and a few select characters are shown that he has a deadly serious side, a loving heart, and a noble streak that he strives to hide from the world.  I didn't see him so much of a parody as one cut from the same cloth.

I love Lord Peter and after just one book am awfully fond of Albert.  I intend to read more in the series--they're good fun, well-written, clever, and diverting.

I flipped through the book to see what caught my eye enough to make me earmark a page near the beginning of the novel.

One of the American characters, Marlowe, visits Albert at his flat above a London police station and notes how it is furnished:

It was tastefully, even luxuriously, furnished.  There were one two delightful old pieces, a Rembrandt etching over the bureau, a Steinlen cat, a couple of original cartoons, and a lovely little Girtin.
I looked up Steinlen cat on the internet and learned about Théophile Alexandre Steinlenwho in addition to paintings and drawings, also did sculpture on a limited basis, most notably figures of cats that he had great affection for as seen in many of his paintings.  I immediately recognized the cats in the posters and felt a little thrill as I've always liked Steinlen cats without knowing what they were.

I also looked up Girtin and found out about Thomas Girtin (18 February 1775 – 9 November 1802), who was an English painter and etcher. A friend and rival of J. M. W. Turner, Girtin played a key role in establishing watercolor as a reputable art form.

Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire (1801)
Just knowing that Albert had a Steinlen cat (probably a sculpture) and a Kirtin watercolor painting in his flat makes me like him all the more!

Monday, August 04, 2014

Austen in August - heads up for review and giveaway

The 3rd annual Austen in August blog event kicked off last Friday, August 1 at Lost Generation Reader.  Thanks to Jenna for hosting what promises to be a really fun reading/blogging experience.

I've signed up to do a review/giveaway on August 26 of The Watsons and Emma Watson: Jane Austen's Unfinished Novel Completed by Joan Aiken.  The giveaway will be open through August 30 and will be available for international as well as U.S. residents.  So mark your calendar so that you can come back and enter the giveaway.  The Watsons is one of Austen's unfinished works and was not published until the 1870s.  Many have speculated as to why Austen never finished it--I've read it a couple of times and read one continuation (by A Lady) but am looking forward to see what Aiken did with it.

I'm also planning to read Jane Austen's First Love, by Syrie James as well as Jane Austen and Names by Maggie Lane.

And I am planning on enjoying reading everyone else's blog posts about my favorite author.

Though it's not part of Austen in August, here's a link to a blog post I did on Mansfield Park when I reread it earlier this year: What is the Matter With Fanny?

Friday, August 01, 2014

The Secret History

Bennington College, Vermont, author Donna Tartt's alma mater

I finished Donna Tartt's The Secret History last week.  What an interesting book.

I blogged about it a bit when I featured it in a First Chapter-First Paragraph, but it really deserves its own post as well although I seem unable to form a coherent theme to write about so I'll just share some random thoughts.

The Secret History reminded me somewhat of A Separate Peace--a similar academic setting but the characters in The Secret History are older (in college not high school), though not necessarily more mature. And there were shades of Lord of the Flies (another book from my sophomore year of high school)--it's an examination of what happens when children (and the young adults in The Secret History, despite their facade of independence are little more than children) are left to run amok.

It's a fairly dark book, with a motley collection of interesting but mostly amoral characters who drink to excess.  Honestly, with the amount of drinking in this book, I was amazed that any of the main characters remained alive by novel's end.  That makes me sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but I was amazed by how much hard liquor these 20-year-olds could consume without suffering from alcohol poisoning.

It seems I can't read a book anymore without it reminding of another book and this book reminded me of lots of books, apparently...but it did also remind me of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier in that the hero commits murder and the reader really wants him to get away with it.

I was surprised by the lackluster ending.  Those of you who have read the book might be surprised to find that I found the ending lackluster, but I had envisioned so much more.  ***SPOILER: I thought that the professor of the classics students, Julian, was more involved in the murder. I thought of him as a catalyst or Dionysus figuring who actively but covertly urged his students to experiment with madness.  In the end, he was just a weak man who really viewed his role as more of a hobby than a responsibility.

I did think this a pretty interesting novel--I didn't fall in love with it, and I'm not sure I would reread it--but it was definitely an interesting premise and well-crafted novel.

Here's a good review of it in The Guardian and the comments following the article are worth reading--they run the gambit from "greatest book ever" to "tedious and shallow."  I'm in the ever-ambiguous "interesting" category.

The is the sixth book in my TBR Pile Challenge for 2014.  Making headway!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday - Authors of Whom I Own The Most Books

I was lucky enough to find these stamps of the Bronte sisters (no Anne though), Eliot, and Gaskell awhile ago and they are now framed on my bookshelf near their works.

I absolutely love this week's theme and couldn't resist playing along.  Visit The Broke and the Bookish to play along or see what other bloggers fill their shelves with.

Here are the authors whose books grace my shelves most prominently.

1.  Jane Austen - a given, right.  All her books in various editions ranging from complete works to graphic style.

2. Charles Dickens - I always put out the disclaimer that Dickens and I have issues, and yet I own most of his stuff, and good editions too!

3.  The Family Bronte - again multiple editions of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, including my beloved hardbound copies with the woodcut illustrations that match that of my parents' copy that I read as a teen.

4.  Edward Rutherford - I love his historical novels and own everything except the ones on Russia and Paris, and the Paris one I'm getting this summer.

5. Diana Gabaldon - I have the complete Outlander series - half in hardbound and half in paperback, plus the Outlander Companion and the graphic novel.

6.  Daphne du Maurier - I read her a lot as a teen, lost all my books in a flooded basement when I was in my early twenties, and bought a complete set at a used bookstore because I knew I wanted to reread everything again.

7.  Shakespeare - two complete works, plus individual plays, plus three biographies, plus multiple critical works.

8. Elizabeth Gaskell - I read her end-to-end a few years ago, so I have everything she ever wrote including letters.  Love, love, love this author.

9. George Eliot - working my way through Eliot though slower than when I did Gaskell, still I own everything she wrote, and love most of it.  Felix Holt may be my nemesis.

10. Tracy Chevalier - one of my favorite contemporary writers.  I own all her books, and have read most of them.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Mailbox Monday - Unaccustomed Earth

I haven't done Mailbox Monday in a while because I have been trying to read from my shelves and resist acquiring more than I can handle.

However, I met my sister for lunch yesterday and we did some book trading over mimosas and omelettes.

She gave me a copy of Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri, and said it was fantastic.  So that's my new book for this month!  I'm excited to read it because it is eight interconnected short stories set in Cambridge, Seattle, India, and Thailand.  I don't get to India and Thailand much in my reading and I've been wanting to, so this will be perfect.

Here's what Amazon had to say:
These eight stories by beloved and bestselling author Jhumpa Lahiri take us from Cambridge and Seattle to India and Thailand, as they explore the secrets at the heart of family life. Here they enter the worlds of sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, friends and lovers. Rich with the signature gifts that have established Jhumpa Lahiri as one of our most essential writers,Unaccustomed Earth exquisitely renders the most intricate workings of the heart and mind.
Anyone read this book or anything by Lahiri.  The cover of this book said she won a Pulitzer Prize for The Namesake.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

I had been hearing a lot about Tell the Wolves I'm Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, on fellow readers' blogs--it kept cropping up on "Best of" lists so I put my name down for the audio book at the library and finished it last week.

Here's the Amazon blurb:
In Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Brunt has made a singular portrait of the late-‘80s AIDS epidemic’s transformation of a girl and her family. But beyond that, she tells a universal story of how love chooses us, and how flashes of our beloved live through us even after they’re gone. Before her Uncle Finn died of an illness people don’t want to talk about, 14-year-old June Elbus thought she was the center of his world. A famous and reclusive painter, Finn made her feel uniquely understood, privy to secret knowledge like how to really hear Mozart’s Requiem or see the shape of negative space. When he’s gone, she discovers he had a bigger secret: his longtime partner Toby, the only other person who misses him as much as she does. Her clandestine friendship with Toby—who her parents blame for Finn’s illness—sharpens tensions with her sister, Greta, until their bond seems to exist only in the portrait Finn painted of them. With wry compassion, Brunt portrays the bitter lengths to which we will go to hide our soft underbellies, and how summoning the courage to be vulnerable is the only way to see through to each other’s hungry, golden souls.
I have to say, I agree with just about all of the lavish praise for this book.  The narrator is honest with a strong but sensitive voice.  It's a wonderful coming-of-age story, and I really appreciated how June, the 14-year-old first person narrator, grew in the course of the book as she faced not only the incredible loss of her beloved uncle to AIDS, but also came to understand her sister and parents in a way that was realistic and very moving.  Brunt did a great job in getting inside the head of a self-conscious 14-year old girl and telling her story with the right amount of tension.

There was a lot to like about this book...

  • June's sister Greta has the lead in their high school's production of South Pacific--June grapples with the prejudices that surface within her own family against the backdrop of the prejudices exhibited by Nelly Flatbush and Lieutenant Joe Cable in the musical.
  • June and her family live a short train ride from Manhattan, while Uncle Finn  and Toby live in the city; June visits both in the course of the novel, and I loved hearing about where they go...The Cloisters, Serendipity 3, Horn & Hardart automat, Grand Central Station, etc.
  • The 1980's - the story takes place in 1987 so it was nostalgic for me to hear about the music, the clothes, the issues of the day.  Even Dungeons and Dragons surfaced as a thing!  Brunt did a good job in recreating the social climate of the time, creating a detailed, recognizable world.
  • Wolves--they show up only in the shadows: the title, the negative space in the portrait Finn paints of his nieces, howling in the woods--they represent the dark side of the human psyche.  They're seen obliquely but are never really out of the picture.
My thanks go out to all those bloggers who featured this book on the sites--it's not a book I might've found on my own but it is definitely worth the reading.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

First Chapter First Paragraph ~ Tuesday Intros - The Secret History

Every Tuesday, Bibliophile By the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph- Tuesday Intros and invites readers to post the beginning of books they are reading or about to read or would like to read.

I'm currently more than half way through The Secret History, by Donna Tartt.  It's one of those books with a cultish following, and I can see why.  It takes place in a small liberal arts college in Vermont and the first-person narrator is a 20-year old student from California who enrolls in a classics program that has only five other students.  They take the study of Greek, history, language, culture and ethics very seriously.

Here's the opening of the Prologue:

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.  He'd been dead for ten days before they found him, you know.  It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history--state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston.
It is difficult to believe that Henry's modest plan could have worked so well despite these unforeseen events.  We hadn't intended to hide the body where it couldn't be found.  In fact, we hadn't hidden it at all but had simply left it where it fell in hopes that some luckless passer-by would stumble over it before anyone even noticed he was missing.

I'm hard pressed to think of another novel that starts by giving away the plot so completely at the outset, but then this story is not about whether the college kids kill their irksome friend, but whether they get away with it.  And that I don't know.

I'm enjoying the book though thankfully I'm having a hard time relating to either the main character or his fellow students.  Tartt, however, is a marvelous writer and Richard, her first-person narrator reminds me a lot of Nick Carraway from Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

Anybody else read this?  Does this opening intrigue you?  Can you think of any other novels that seemingly give away the story before it even begins as this one does?